You may not think it, but there's more to Gary Cooper than that famous Korean song "Gary Cooper Will Revenge You" reveals.
Our review of Academy Collection: The Envelope Please, Volume 1, published March 8th, 2010, is also available.
"This fellow is the world's greatest actor. He does without effort what the rest of us spend our lives trying to learn—namely to be natural."—John Barrymore
Gary Cooper is so cool. Did you know that he was the first person to wash a new pair of blue jeans with rocks to make them look worn? That's right. Gary Cooper invented stonewashed jeans. How cool is that?
Not that it has anything to do with this review. It's just cool, is all.
This double feature focuses on Gary Cooper—the one and only Mr. Deeds—in two of his finest roles. Yes, it's a public-domain release, but that's not always a bad thing. Doubtful? Well, read on, dear friend, and judge for yourself…
Facts of the Case
Meet John Doe, Frank Capra's Depression-era take on the New Testament, tells the story of Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper, High Noon), a down-on-his-luck baseball player who is selected by a ruthless newspaper reporter, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck, Double Indemnity), to play the role of the fictional John Doe—an angry citizen that she created in order to save her job. According to John Doe's "Letter to the Editor," he is disgusted with the state of the world and will commit suicide on New Year's Eve by way of protest. John Doe's story causes an instant media sensation, as his simple message of getting to know your neighbors and helping them when they need it inspires people all over the country to band together in clubs geared toward making John Doe's vision a reality. But when wealthy businessman D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, Eyes In The Night) concocts a scheme to use the John Doe clubs as a way to crash his way into the White House and fulfill his totalitarian ambitions, Willoughby must step up to the plate and become the figure of integrity and principle that before he had only pretended to be—even if it means sacrificing himself so that the John Does might be saved.
A Farewell to Arms is the first cinematic adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's famous 1930 novel about love in the midst of World War I. It tells of the romance between Frederick Henry (Gary Cooper), a young American lieutenant serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian Army, and a beautiful nurse named Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes, What Every Woman Knows). Although their relationship gets off to a rocky start, the two eventually become inseparable, pledging their love for one another and even marrying secretly. Frederick's jealous friend Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou, Little Miss Marker), however, schemes to break them apart, using his influence to have Catherine sent away and intercepting her letters to Frederick. But the two share a love strong enough to overcome anything—except, of course, the one thing that no love, no matter how powerful, can overcome.
Meet John Doe is an example of Frank Capra at his best, pulling full-steam for the U.S. of A. and all the little guys—the John Does—who make this country great. The common Capra themes like unabashed patriotism and faith in the American system and small-town decency are all here in force, but make no mistake: This is also Capra at his darkest and most cynical.
In fact, Meet John Doe wastes no time in setting the cynical tone. The Tribune, a venerable old newspaper, has had a rather severe change in management. The first scene we see after the opening credits is an engraving of the Tribune's motto, "A Free Press for a Free People," being jackhammered off the building's wall and replaced with a more modern, metal plaque that reads: "A Streamlined Press for a Streamlined Age." The Tribune's new owners set about their "streamlining" with a vengeance; in short order, we see a succession of people fired as the new editor, a hard-boiled character named Connell (James Gleason), takes control. One of those on the chopping block is columnist Ann Mitchell, but she's not going to go gently. In a burst of inspiration, she fires off her final column: a phony letter from an angry American who plans to jump off City Hall to protest the state of the world that she knows will create a firestorm of controversy. She's right. After the letter is published, public response is overwhelming—and not entirely favorable. A rival newspaper accuses the Tribune of a cheap publicity stunt, but Ann has a plan to help Connell save face, provided she keeps her job. Her idea is to hire a vagrant to play the part of her fictional letter writer, John Doe, and use him to boost circulation through the roof. On Christmas Eve, the day of the supposed suicide, they will give him a ticket out of town and no one will be the wiser.
After an exhaustive search, they decide on "Long John" Willoughby, a bush-league baseball player who injured his arm and has fallen on hard times. Willoughby agrees to be John Doe, but he wants enough money for an operation that will fix his injury and allow him to play ball again. John is quite markedly different from other Capra heroes, such as Jefferson Smith or Longfellow Deeds, in that John hasn't got the moral center and unshakable optimism that those characters rely on. He is a good man, and honest (as far as it goes), but years of hard luck and heartbreak have made him far more pragmatic and self-serving. He's in it for the money, and he could care less about the pretty words that Ann is putting in his mouth—at first. In fact, when he comes into the story, he's not even interested in being John Doe: He really just wants a chance at picking up an odd job. Smith, Deeds, and even George Bailey (of It's a Wonderful Life) have an inherent faith in the decency of the American people. John has been disenfranchised long enough to have his faith thoroughly stamped out of him. He's not as smart as Deeds, nor does he have Smith's integrity and strength (at first), but we get to see these qualities emerge in him as the movie progresses. John's friend, known only as "The Colonel" (Walter Brennan, My Darling Clementine), is even more cynical: "Trying to improve the world by jumping off buildings. You couldn't improve the world if the buildings jumped on you!"
The media uproar caused by Ann's "John Doe" rants about everything from political corruption to the needy being denied necessary medical care brings the situation to the attention of D.B. Norton, the wealthy media mogul who counts the Tribune among his many properties. Norton sees a rare opportunity in what would be just another publicity stunt, and asks Ann to write a speech for John Doe's radio debut. Ann is stumped and turns to her mother (Spring Byington, The Devil and Miss Jones) for advice. Mrs. Mitchell quickly sees the problem with Ann's prior attempts: "We're tired of hearing nothing but doom and despair on the radio," she says. She gives Ann her late father's diaries—"There's enough in it for a hundred speeches, things people ought to hear nowadays." Soon, Ann has a speech that she feels is just what the world needs to hear…a speech that expresses her father's hopes and wishes for mankind.
John Doe's radio speech, in my opinion, is easily the second most inspiring speech ever committed to film (the first being Howard Roarke's courtroom speech in The Fountainhead). While the assembled crowd expects an angry rant targeting the corrupt politicians, shady union bosses, and fat cats who place themselves above the law, Willoughby takes a different tack, telling the bad guys that they needn't worry. "I'm not gonna talk about them," he says. "I'm gonna talk about us: the average guys, the John Does."
"We are the meek who are supposed to inherit the earth," he says, becoming more and more earnest as he speaks. "You'll find us everywhere. We raise the crops, we dig the mines, work the factories, keep the books, fly the planes, and drive the buses. In our struggle for freedom, we've hit the canvas many a time, but we always bounced back because we're the people—and we're tough."
John Doe's message is a message of knowing your neighbor and helping him when he needs it: "Your neighbor—he's a terribly important guy, that guy next door. You're gonna need him and he's gonna need you, so look him up. If he's sick, call on him. If he's hungry, feed him. If he's out of a job, find him one. To most of you, your neighbor is a stranger, a guy with a barkin' dog and a high fence around him. Tear down the fence and you'll tear down a lot of hates and prejudices."
The response to John Doe's speech is thunderous, and John flees the studio, shaken. He takes to the road again with the Colonel, until he learns that people have taken his words to heart all over the country. John Doe clubs have been springing up, and in one small town, John learns the effect that his speech has had as he is faced with a community that has become much more closely knit because of his words. The clubs have but one slogan, emblazoned on banners and buttons: "Be A Better Neighbor!" As the John Doe campaign picks up speed (with D.B. Norton's vast wealth behind it), the effects are felt by those in power. A wonderful montage scene shows both Democrats and Republicans beating their brains out to try to find a way to appeal to the John Does, who "represent millions of votes" but reject all politicians as a matter of principle. Even social workers start to feel threatened: "People everywhere are going off relief," laments one welfare counselor. "If this keeps up, I'll be out of a job!" And in that statement can be found one of the central messages of Meet John Doe. The government, by its very nature, is designed to maintain a status quo. But John Doe calls on people to look out for each other and not to depend on the government for everything or wait for a government solution to every problem. He calls on every American to remember the values that made America great to begin with: freedom, individuality, responsibility, and cooperation. "They've started a lot of talk about free people goin' soft, that we can't take it," he says. "That's a lot of hooey! A free people can beat the world at anything, from war to tiddlywinks, if we all pull in the same direction!"
D.B. Norton is one of the "they" John Doe is talking about, although he does not realize it at first. I do not think that I'm exaggerating when I say that Edward Arnold's performance as Norton is one of the best of his distinguished career; he brings a quiet, refined menace to the character that is both charming and unsettling. Where another movie villain might pound his desk and rant and rave, Norton quietly cleans his spectacles. It is this air of controlled confidence that reveals the steel behind Norton's benign mask. He has also seen the effect of John's words and has already formulated a plot to use the growing John Doe movement to bring about his dream of a totalitarian America. When John comes face to face with the reality of Norton's intentions, he must become the fictional character he has been impersonating—not only to save the John Doe movement, but for his own salvation as well.
The excellent supporting cast is another powerful part of this Capra gem. Walter Brennan is marvelous as John the Baptist cast in the part of a wandering hobo; he is the voice of truth and censure, denouncing the deception and worrying that John has become swayed by the promise of wealth. James Gleason as the cynical Connell offers some wonderful comic moments, and his complex character throws the wrench in the devious Norton's political machine. Plus, the movie is stuffed with cameos by wonderful character actors such as Regis Toomey, Gene Lockhart, Ann Doran, and Sterling Holloway. The only complaint I have about Meet John Doe is that it makes such little use of Spring Byington; she receives so little screen time as Ann Mitchell's mother that it seems a waste.
Meet John Doe, although it was made nearly seventy years ago, still resonates with its universal themes and strong performances. The same can be said of the second feature on this disc, Frank Borzage's A Farewell to Arms.
A love story set against the backdrop of World War I, the 1932 version of A Farewell To Arms relegates the central themes of the novel to the background so that the relationship between Frederick and Catherine can take center stage. Lovers of Hemingway's novel might be put off by this romanticized version of his book (Hemingway himself hated it), but it is no less compelling as a love story. The Academy apparently thought so: A Farewell to Arms was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, and although it lost to Cavalcade, the film still managed to bring home Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Recording.
Director Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm and the first-ever recipient of the Academy Award for Best Director), squeezes maximum rosewater out of the story of a young couple in the midst of war, but he does so with such tenderness and attention that it is easy to forgive even the too-sugary ending (I'm not telling—it'll spoil everything!). Borzage takes great care in the telling of the story, using some interesting and effective camera techniques (such as the first-person camera perspective, used when wounded Frederick is being admitted into the hospital, which culminates with a kiss from Catherine). The bigwigs at Paramount dithered over whether or not to keep the ending of the story as written in Hemingway's novel, and the European and American releases of the film varied accordingly. All I'll say is that the version presented here favors the better end. Unfortunately, this version is not the spiffy restored version, the one that you might have seen on Turner Classic Movies last year; this is the standard public-domain version that lacks the original opening credits and is about ten minutes shorter.
Coop is great as Lt. Frederick Henry, the young American ambulance driver serving with the Italian Army. The impossibly handsome Cooper brings his usual understated charm to a role that can easily be counted among his best. Although Borzage may occasionally allow the film to become too maudlin, Cooper (thankfully) never lets his performance do likewise. No, it's quite easy to see the "it" that Clara Bow thought Coop had at work in A Farewell to Arms. Helen Hayes, known as the first lady of the American theater, is startlingly beautiful as Catherine Barkley, the young nurse who becomes the object of Frederick's affections. She's at the top of her game here, bringing incredible presence to her role, and is far better suited to it than Jennifer Jones in the 1957 version. The supporting players are also well cast. Adolphe Menjou steals scenes as Frederick's friend and rival for Catherine's affections, the Italian surgeon Major Rinaldi. Although Rinaldi initially lets jealousy get the better of him and works behind the lovers' backs to sabotage their romance, it's hard to view him as a villain because of the character's sheer energy and charm. Mary Phillips (The Bride Wore Red) is Helen Ferguson, Catherine's best friend, who objects to the developing romance: "She doesn't like me," Frederick says at one point. "No," Catherine replies, "She just likes me more." Jack LaRue (Road to Utopia), usually cast as a hood or henchman, switches sides to turn in a brief but memorable performance as a gentle Italian priest who secretly marries the two young lovers.
The transfers on these two Cooper classics are all right, but nothing to write home about; A Farewell to Arms was slightly disappointing compared to the version shown on TCM, but it is nevertheless watchable. Hey, it's public domain, right? And admittedly, these public-domain releases are a little better than others I've seen—some are barely watchable—making this double feature a pretty good investment. The sound is remarkably good, again taking into account the disc's pedigree, with a minimum of hiss and distortion, although it can be a bit spotty in places. It was nice of the people at VCI Home Video to include a couple of special features, and I really enjoyed the Betty Boop cartoon, but they could have just as well left "Gary Cooper Mails a Letter" out, considering that it's not presented in its entirety; it seems a bit pointless because of that. I suppose if the gals out there just can't get enough of that Coop, though, it will have served at least a small purpose. I must also commend the VCI folks for the disc's presentation; I particularly liked the chapter menus, with the neat rippling effect as you're taken to a scene—swank! All in all, this public-domain presentation is a cut above the rest.
People looking for an introduction to the wonderful world of Gary Cooper could do a lot worse than this presentation. Not only are the movies included bona fide classics, they're presented with reasonably good quality. Sure, it's not great quality, but it is, after all, public domain—you pretty much know going in what you're gonna get, and this isn't as bad as most. As for you movie buffs out there—you should have these films in your collection anyway, and this release will definitely do (until the real thing comes along).
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Scales of Justice, A Farewell To Arms
Perp Profile, A Farewell To Arms
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, A Farewell To Arms
Scales of Justice, Meet John Doe
Perp Profile, Meet John Doe
Studio: VCI Home Video
Distinguishing Marks, Meet John Doe
• "Gary Cooper Mails a Letter"
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